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Story: Building stone

An imposing edifice made of marble or limestone has all the more impact in New Zealand, where timber construction is the rule. Building in stone is expensive, and has mainly been used for civic buildings, churches and memorials.

Story by Simon Nathan and Bruce Hayward
Main image: Blenheim war memorial

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Building in the past: wood vs stone

Traditionally, Māori used stone for paths and walls, but wood for buildings. After 1840 immigrants arrived from Britain and Europe, where brick and stone were common. But in New Zealand they preferred timber, as there were plenty of trees. And they discovered that wooden houses were safer during an earthquake.

Stone for building needs to be strong, easy to cut, and attractive looking. Only a few kinds of New Zealand rock are suitable. The common greywacke stone does not split well.

Using stone is more expensive and difficult. It is laborious to quarry (dig out) the stone. You then need a stonemason, to trim and lay the stones. Some wealthy people built stone houses, and it was used for churches, banks and memorials.

Limestone

Limestone is a rock made of the shells of marine animals that died millions of years ago. In southern New Zealand there is a soft, white limestone known as Ōamaru stone. It can be sawn or carved, to make blocks and pillars. Ōamaru was sometimes called ‘Whitestone City’

Marble

Marble is a hard limestone that can be polished. A beautiful grey marble is quarried at Tākaka, near Nelson.

Volcanic rock

This rock is formed from lava when a volcano erupts. New Zealand has several types, including:

  • Basalt: You can see this black stone in walls and steps around Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.
  • Hinuera stone: this cream or tan stone is known as ignimbrite, made of volcanic pumice and ash.

Changing use

In the 19th century, nearby rocks would be used for a whole building. But by the 20th century, stone was used just for frontages, pillars and panels. Today, there are few stonemasons, and concrete is cheap. The most popular stones are Hinuera ignimbrite and Ōamaru limestone.

Historic buildings

There are important stone buildings particularly in Auckland, Christchurch, Ōamaru and Dunedin. Others include:

  • Stone store, Kerikeri. Built in the 1830s, it is New Zealand’s oldest stone building.
  • National War Memorial, Wellington. This displays many beautiful stones, including marble and granite.
  • Lyttelton Timeball Station. Opened in 1876, this was made of South Island red volcanic rock and Ōamaru stone.
How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan and Bruce Hayward, 'Building stone', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/building-stone (accessed 27 July 2017)

Story by Simon Nathan and Bruce Hayward, published 12 Jun 2006